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One lucky gringo

Oct 2, 2013

Mechanical troubles lead a delivery crew to a little-visited Caribbean island and a hotly contested local boat race

After departing Cuba, Howey and crew made for the Panama Canal. Mechanical problems forced them to seek refuge at isolated Isla Providencia.

After departing Cuba, Howey and crew made for the Panama Canal. Mechanical problems forced them to seek refuge at isolated Isla Providencia.

Alfred Wood/Ocean Navigator illustralion

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We spent Christmas in Cuba before setting off for Panama. I was skippering a 55-foot Cape Horn expedition yacht named Billy, ultimately bound for Hong Kong. As we rounded Guanahacabibes Peninsula and set a waypoint 900 nautical miles distant, I looked at the uninterrupted steaming we had ahead of us and the nasty weather closing in and marveled to my first mate, Doug Warthen, how tenuous this was, our hold on life.

“If we lose a handful of systems, like the genset and watermaker, the sat phone and the main engine, we’re dead in the water out here.”

It was one of those things said in passing and soon forgotten. I wouldn’t even remember saying it until Doug reminded me a day later. Because in the next 24 hours, as the seas built and the boat pounded, we lost those four systems in that very order. Our incredible run of good luck had begun.

A Cape Horn 55 similar to Billy, the power voyager Hugh Howey captained to Isla Providencia.

The main belt on the genset snapped, and the spare the owner had aboard was the wrong part. Without the genset, there was no watermaker. The main engine sputtered and began to smoke — we would later discover a clog in the fuel return on the turbo. But the seas were too rough to effect repairs. Foaming 10- and 12-foot seas crashed over the rails. When they combined into monsters, we saw solid green through the pilothouse windows. I expected to see fish swimming by. Stepping out anywhere on deck was hazardous.

The get-home engine
We were just three days into our jaunt to Panama, and it was the last day of the year 2000. For those who knew how to count, it was the true end of the millennium. As the smoke from the main engine made it difficult to breathe, and our attempts to diagnose the problem and make repairs in a violent engine room proved futile, we decided to shut her down and run solely on the small get-home engine.

This poor motor was barely capable of making way in the steep sea. She was enough for steering, but hardly that. I turned to the charts, feeling like a sailor trying to beat too far into the wind and knowing it was time to change course. The problem was that we were in the middle of nowhere. Without the main engine, it would be a week or more to get to port. What we needed was a leeward anchorage, some place to drop the hook and get some rest. Days of pounding and lack of sleep had the small crew at wit’s end.

Howey on deck and in Billy’s pilothouse after leaving Cuba.

There was a spot on the chart, a mere speck, with the name Isla de Providencia. Our track had us skirting this black dot. I’d never heard of the island. It said “Colombia” in parenthesis, which told me who owned it but nothing else. But if it was land, it might be protection. I turned Billy to starboard and found a more comfortable tack. The poor get-home engine sputtered valiantly. We made our gradual way.

Seeing land on the radar felt inspiring after a long day of inching along. The sun left us, and I made a general call on the radio, not knowing if the island was even inhabited. Another skipper called back and filled us in with the lay of the land. There was one protected harbor. Everywhere else was wind-blasted lee shores, and the entire island was ringed with reef. This skipper provided a handful of waypoints from his chart, and with our forward-looking sonar, radar, and spotlight, we crept into port with cliffs on one side of us and coral on the other.

I’ll never forget the quiet that greeted us as we entered that harbor, the waves no longer bashing our steel hull and the poor engine given a rest. There was just the rattle of chain as we dropped the hook, a splash, and a few minutes of watching the lights on shore to make sure we were held. We collapsed in our bunks at the end of a long day, the end of a long year, a millennium — and we woke up in paradise.

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